Conference Puts the Spotlight on Financial Exploitation of the Elderly

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 31, 2014

In 2005, 80-year old Jane Jacques suffered her second stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. With no family living nearby, the widow’s physician determined that she could no longer live independently at home. The Department of Elderly Affairs asked the Alliance for Better Long Term Care to find Ms. Jacques a guardian. The probate court appointed Janet Mastronardi, to serve as guardian, making the East Greenwich attorney responsible for the older woman’s personal and financial well-being.

Over the next five years, Mastronardi embezzled and misappropriated approximately $130,000 from Jacques’ accounts, leaving her near penniless. An employee of lawyer noticed the financial irregularities while preparing an accounting of Jacques’ finances for the probate court and contacted the Rhode Island State Police, who conducted an investigation.

Earlier this year, Mastronardi pled guilty to her crimes of financial exploitation and although the Attorney General’s Office sought jail time, the Court ordered her to seven years, with 30 months to serve in home confinement and the remaining 54 months suspended with probation. In addition, the Court ordered her to pay full restitution to Jacques’ estate.

This case clearly illustrates the hidden problem of financial exploitation on older victims who oftentimes are unwilling to report this abuse because for fear of losing support of their family member or caregiver or future retaliation of these individuals. Simply put, this abuse occurs when deception, coercion, undue influence or misrepresentation is used, like the above example, to obtain unauthorized use of the older person’s property, money, pension book or other valuables.

But, the National Center on Elder Abuse, as well as other elder advocate organizations, has called financial exploitation of elders “the crime of the century.”

Aging advocates say there is currently reliable current data available on the precedence of financial exploitation. But, according to a 2010 survey by the Investor Protection Trust (IPT), more than seven million older Americans – one out of every five citizens over the age of 65 – already have been victimized by a financial scam. One year later, a MetLife study reported the huge impact of this problem, noting that the annual financial loss by victims of elder financial abuse is estimated to be at least $2.9 billion dollars, a 12 percent increase from the $2.6 billion estimated in 2008.

Combatting Financial Exploitation in Rhode Island

Just two days ago, the state’s Rhode Island Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, brought together the Rhode Island Division of Elderly Affairs (DEA), local and state police, fire, social service agencies, and banks and other financial institutions to put the spotlight on financial exploitation

The half day event, hosted by the Rhode Island Citizens Commission for the Safety and Care of the Elderly, at the CVS Health Finance Center in Cumberland, provided over 100 attendees an in-depth look at how financial crimes cases against older persons are developed, investigated and prosecuted, as well as a discussion on best practices for financial institutions to identity financial exploitation.

Financial Exploitation a Change to Investigate

Keynote speaker, Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, stated “As striking as that figure is, government statistics estimate that financial exploitation is a highly underreported crime because many of the victims are unaware they are being duped or they are too frightened to even report this crime. Many elders rely on others they believe they can trust to handle their financial affairs, only to be robbed of their hard-earned money. In some cases, the perpetrator leaves the victim penniless. Financial exploitation of elders is one of the most challenging charges to investigate and prosecute,” said.

Recognizing the challenging factors in investigating and prosecuting elder abuse, including financial exploitation, the AG’s Office has created the Elder Abuse Unit, to handle those type of cases, says Kilmartin, noting that the specialized unit was created in recognition of the fact that the proportion of the state’s population over age 60 is dramatically increasing and will continue to do so. The Elder Abuse Unit is responsible for investigative management and prosecution of crimes involving elderly victims of abuse, neglect and financial exploitation

Since it was established in 2006, the Elder Abuse Unit has seen a steady increase in the number of cases reported and prosecuted, noted Kilmartin, adding that the Office in its first year prosecuted 65 cases of elder abuse, including physical and financial exploitation. Last year, 140 individuals were prosecuted, an increase of 115 percent in less than ten years, he says…

Kilmartin credited the dramatic increase in prosecutions to a recognition by society that financial exploitation is a crime and should be prosecuted. “Like other forms of elder abuse, financial exploitation is a complex problem and it is easy for people to have misconceptions about it. I have made it a priority to educate the public, law enforcement, healthcare professionals and the financial industry on the signs of financial exploitation and the numbers prove that increased awareness has directly led to increased reporting and prosecuting,” stated Kilmartin.

The Attorney General called on banking and financial industry to understand and know the signs of financial exploitation, as they are most likely to catch irregular transactions by perpetrators. “As many elders still regularly go to the bank, bank personnel are in a good position to notice suspicious activity and behavior,” he added.

John Clarkson, former Pawtucket Police Officer who now serves as Assistant Vice President of Security at Pawtucket Credit Union, led a presentation at the conference discussing how bank employees need to be aware of the various signs that an elder may be being exploited and ways to stop it.

“It’s unfortunate but our elders are a prime target for financial exploitation. It is important that we at Pawtucket Credit Union and at other financial institutions train our front line staff and management to identify when this is occurring, prevent it if possible, and most importantly report it immediately. When discovered we have worked closely with the Attorney General’s Office and law enforcement agencies throughout the state to have those responsible prosecuted,” Clarkson said.

Kilmartin stressed that it is equally important for family members and friends to prevent and report instances of financial exploitation. He urges, family, friends and neighbors to take note of what may be happening with older relatives or neighbors. “If anything seems suspicious, such as the person seems to be withdrawn, nervous, fearful or anxious, especially around certain people, when they have not seemed so in the past, it is important to report the matter to the appropriate authorities,” he recommends.

Abuse and self-neglect reports can be filed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and on nights, weekends, and holidays, by calling 401-462-0555. Reports can be filed anonymously and are confidential. In filing a report of alleged abuse, you should give as much detail as possible, including the name of the elder, address, and contact information. If reporting to law enforcement, contact your police department, the Rhode Island State Police at 401-444-1000, or the Office of Attorney General at 401-274-4400.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer covering aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

Mistaken Identity Can Be Hazardous to Your Business

Published in Golocalprov.com, October 24, 2014

Just three weeks before the City of Providence’s election for Mayor, Eastside customers of The Camera Werks, a long-time fixture on Hope Street, expressed concern over a recent letter to the editor (LTE) written by a Patricia Louise Zacks, who they surmised was the retail store owner. The small neighborhood retail establishment has operated for over 27 years, serving three generations of customers.

Unaware of the published letter, visitors and emails began coming in regarding the LTE, which left the shop owner. Patricia Susan Zacks, confused. Through conversations, she quickly learned that emails were circulating throughout the East Side neighborhood, linking her to the editorial letter that she never wrote. In sharp protest to the views of the editorial letter, longtime customers pledged to bring their business elsewhere.

Last week’s political drama came about because of mistaken identities. The October 15 LTE, was actually penned by Providence resident, Patricia Louise Zacks, who is now married to the retail store owner’s former husband.

The mistake of mixing up the two Zacks’ identities might not have occurred if Providence Journal newspaper readers had gotten the facts straight before they circulated the LTE to Eastside friends among the Summit Neighborhood. Each Zacks has a different middle name and reside in different cities, one is an East Side resident in Providence, and the other is a Pawtucket resident in Oakhill, just across the Providence city line.

Patricia Susan Zacks, the camera store owner, attempted to use Face Book to clarify that the author of the LTE was not her, but rather a Providence resident, stating “I am a Pawtucket resident who has been a Hope Street merchant for over 27 years and have proudly served my customers. I extend best wishes to all the candidates and look forward to working with whomever the voters decide for the future of Providence.”

Coming to Like Buddy, More

The LTE’s heading, “Journal’s fear of Cianci leads us to support him,” summed up Providence resident Patricia Louise Zacks’ personal journey to ultimately support the former Providence mayor, she says. The Eastside resident of 10 years who works for the State’s Department of Transportation notes that she and her husband “sat on the fence,” for a while not able to decide whether to cast their vote for Housing Court Judge Jorge Elorza or Cianci.

The couple knew of Cianci’s previous felony convictions (acknowledging he served his time and legally had a right to run for mayor) but that he was able to run a City and provide needed services to its residents. Elorza had “impressive credentials,” too, making their political decision, virtually “an impossible choice,” noted Patricia Louis Zacks. She also pointed out in her LTE that Cianci has little to hide, he’s an open book to the voters because of the coverage in the Providence Journal, editorials, op eds, and debates.

Finally, the LTE noted that the straw that broke the camel’s back was the continual attack on Cianci by the Providence Journal combined with an attempt by East Siders to secretly raise $1 million to defeat the two-time convicted felon.

Patricia Louise Zacks notes that after she went public with her household’s support for Cianci, several spiteful messages were left on her answering machine. One caller gave his support for her candidate, but others made typically insulting remarks.

“I expected I would get all sorts of flack, but I didn’t get upset or angry because I could just hit the delete button,” she said.

But, Patricia Louise Zacks also learned of the negative impact of her LTE on another person, one who carried her last surname.

Looking back, “What kind of world do we live in where I cannot exercise my constitutionally-protected right to express my personal opinion in a local newspaper without causing professional and possibly even financial damage to a woman [with the same last name] who owns a small photography and framing business, and is also someone I personally know, admire, and hold in high esteem,” says Patricia Louise Zacks, quipping. “How in God’s name can such a thing happen?”

Chiding those who punish merchants because of who they politically support, she believes offering a quality product or service at a fair price should be more than enough for any businessperson to offer. “Making that owner’s religion, sexual orientation, race, and gender – especially that person’s political ideology – a part of the transaction is, in my opinion, vindictive and small-minded,” charges Patricia Louise Zacks.

A Political Moral

Living in a democracy gives us many rights and privileges, including the entitlement to support a particular political candidate and the right to publically publicize that choice.

Over the years, political campaigns have become a blood sport, even more so in controversial campaigns like the Cianci-Elorza race. Patricia Louise Zacks voiced her support for Cianci, giving us examples of how she reached this decision (to the dismay of many Eastsiders) in a LTE printed in the Providence Journal, the largest major daily in the Ocean State.

But, it was Patricia Susan Zacks who faced the wrath of Eastside readers, many of her customers, because they mistakenly believed she was endorsing the former Providence mayor, a candidate that they were working hard to defeat. Circulating emails with this LTE attached only added fuel to the intense political drama in Rhode Island’s largest community.

One well-placed Elorza supporter told this columnist that he saw no problem boycotting businesses if the owner was not in sync with their choice of candidates. But, in my opinion winning an election should not be based on a “torch and burn” mentality because of differing political views.

For those who want to use their economic clout to support their candidates, I urge them to get the facts straight. Here is a situation where people took action based on faulty information.

If people have differing positions on candidates or policy issues, they can just agree to disagree. When the dust settles after the upcoming Nov. 4 election, whoever carries the day, the sun will surely rise the next day. I can guarantee that one.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues, who just happens to be the husband of Patricia S. Zacks. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

Credit Breaches Are Hazardous to Your Financial Health

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 17, 2014

It seems to happen all the time. Just recently Target Corporation, Home Depot, Dairy Queen and Neiman Marcus – followed by Michaels, and more recently JPMorgan Chase and Kmart – found their data systems being breached. I thought that I had dodged the bullet from being a victim until last month when I received a letter from my local savings and loan warning me about a potential security breach affecting my credit card.

Data breaches and hacking annually affect millions of Americans, costing billions of dollars and countless hours for consumers to correct problems resulting from identity theft and fraud that results in their checks bouncing and being accessed late fees.
Data Breaches Not a Rare Occurrence

What exactly is a data breach? Simply put, a data breach occurs when a company’s database, typically containing customer information, is hacked by sophisticated malware programs that can infiltrate a company’s network, sometimes for months before being noticed.

“Not that long ago, we were taught to always know where your wallet or purse was to ensure we didn’t fall victim to a pickpocket. Yesterday’s common street thief is today’s computer hacker, and it is often months before you realized they’ve virtually picked your pocket,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

According to the Rhode Island Attorney General, his staff has been busy in the past year informing consumers about the data breaches at some of best-known retail and financial companies. He says last year, there were multiple reports of massive data breaches at the nation’s largest corporations. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of companies have suffered one data breach this past year, and 60 percent say they’ve been struck by multiple data breaches in the last two years.
“In today’s technology–driven and paperless retail marketplace, it is inevitable that some, if not all, of your personal and financial information – credit card and banking information, email, and social security number – will be compromised,” warns Kilmartin.

Congressman James Langevin has been a leader on the issue of cyber security, and is leading efforts inside the Washington Beltway. “Stories of public data breaches are becoming increasingly common, and if a Fortune 500 company is susceptible to these types of breaches, we can be sure that similar attacks are possible among other retailers and businesses,” said Congressman Jim Langevin, the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus. “I have been sounding the alarm on cybersecurity for years, and I fear the consequences if we delay any further the steps needed to strengthen our technology infrastructure,” said Langevin.

The Democratic lawmaker, serving the second congressional district since 1991, says, “I am particularly concerned about the potential for cyber attack against critical infrastructure, including our power grid, wastewater management and banking and health care systems, just to name a few. All of these essential services are tied into technology, and it is going to take both a strong commitment from government and a continued partnership between public and private industry in order to get us where we need to be on cyber security. Securing these networks must be a priority, and I believe it is a crucial component of our national and economic security strategies.”

Kilmartin says make no doubt about it, data breaches are a crime, but law enforcement has significant hurdles to overcome when investigating cyber crimes. “Companies that have been targets of recent data breaches are working with federal law enforcement authorities to investigate how the breach happened and who is responsible,” he notes, stressing that early evidence shows that most of the sophisticated criminal enterprises that commit cyber crimes operate outside of the United States, often in Eastern Europe. “The hackers are out of the reach of traditional law enforcement and US Courts, but that has not stopped local, state and federal authorities from investigating,” he says.

Consumers Must Become Their Own Watchdog

“Consumers in today’s world need to continually monitor their electronic purchases, their personal medical information, as well as their banking records. Consumers can follow all the rules to protect their information, and if a business or other entity entrusted with this information is vulnerable, consumers, through no fault of their own, can still be impacted. Many times, a consumer’s first contact with law enforcement may be dealing with the aftermath of a data breach or identity theft. Please know that we are there to help you and will thoroughly investigate to resolve these crimes,” stated Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.

Kilmartin also confirmed that he and attorneys general in several states are looking into these data breaches and hope to get answers from the companies targeted as to how and why they took place. “There are multi-state investigations by attorneys general into how these companies left consumer information vulnerable to an attack,” he said, noting, “as consumer advocates, we are determined to get to the bottom of these data breaches and to work with the companies to better protect the consumer.”

Kilmartin believes it is up to consumers to be their own watchdog: “While companies and law enforcement officials are trying to put an end to this trend, the only way someone can protect themselves is to be vigilant in monitoring their personal and financial information. And by that, I mean check your banking and credit card statements regularly and limit how much information you share with companies.”

Keeping Credit Card Thieves At Bay

Kilmartin says, “I always tell consumers that the best way to protect yourself from scams is education. Being wary of potential scams, and being a savvy consumer is the best way to stop a scam artist in their tracks.” He offers the following common sense tips to protect your credit:

Check your credit card and debit card statements regularly, and on a line-by-line basis. One may think to only look for large unauthorized charges, but thieves may place a small charge – only a few dollars – to check if the card is active. If that charge goes unnoticed, thieves will then make a large unauthorized purchase. Report all suspicious charges, no matter how small. And, check your statements every day if possible. “It may be too late to recoup some or all of your money if you don’t report it immediately,” said Kilmartin.

If you notice an unauthorized charge, report it to your financial institution immediately, cancel the card and have the bank issue you a new one.

Kilmartin recommends consumers take advantage of free credit monitoring many affected companies are offering. “Companies who have been impacted by a data breach don’t want to lose customer loyalty. Many offer up to one free year of credit monitoring for any consumer who shopped there during the breach,” he adds.

Consider adding a fraud alert to your credit report file to protect your credit information. A fraud alert can make it more difficult for someone to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures, which may include contacting you directly, before authorizing the credit card, says Kilmartin, noting that while this may delay your ability to obtain credit immediately, it will protect you from someone fraudulently opening a credit card in your name.

Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to be suspicious of emails, phone calls, or text messages claiming to be from your bank or a retailer you shopped at. Hackers may not have gained access to all the information they need, and will often use the information they do have, like name, date of birth or credit card number to convince you to part with even more sensitive information, such as passwords or social security numbers. When in doubt, call your financial institution directly with questions. The phone number is usually on the back of credit cards and debit cards.

Update your computer’s anti-virus software. Just as hackers have wormed their way into secure databases at large-scale companies, they can worm their way into your computer.

Change your passwords. The most basic way to stop an intruder is to lock the door. Set strong passwords and don’t reuse them for different accounts, especially for accounts that involve your banking or credit card information.

Go “old school” and pay with cash or check. While we have become accustomed to using credit and debit cards to make everyday purchases, every company still takes U.S. currency.

Under federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. You may obtain a free copy of your credit report by going to http://www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.